Sociological Ruminations

A blog about books (both non-fiction and fiction) that address forms of social inequality associated with race, gender, class, or mental health.

Rape New York, a Memoir by Jana Leo

* A home located on a cul-de-sac with very few routes leading to a main road has fewer “get-aways” for a burglar and may therefore hold less appeal.

* As noted in a recent article in a San Francisco newspaper, a burned-out street lamp may have contributed to creating an environment that was attractive to a rapist.

* A book store with couches and chairs situated throughout the store, particularly in front of the bathrooms, enables legitimate users of the space to notice theft.

Each example (above) refers to environmental criminology (i.e., how environmental factors create or lessen opportunities for crime).  Criminologists with an interest in this area use the phrase “target hardening” to refer to visible aspects of environmental design that can make a home or business hold less appeal for a potential criminal. Increasing the lighting around one’s home, installing surveillance cameras, or installing a dead bolt are examples of target hardening. Routine activity theory is an explanation of crime, and it’s related to environmental criminology.  The theory, which was proposed in 1979 by two criminologists named Cohen and Felson, posits that crime occurs when the following three things converge in space and time: (1) a motivated offender, (2) a suitable target (i.e., victim), and (3) lack of a capable guardian.  A suitable target could be a person, place, or object.  Likewise, the capable guardian is not necessarily an actual person.  Instead, it could refer to the presence of a lock, a security camera, or anything else that makes the target less attractive to the offender.  Target hardening decreases the possibility that capable guardianship is lacking.

I just finished reading Rape New York, a very short book by Jana Leo.  In her discussion of crime, Leo essentially draws on theories from the field of criminology. However, she is an architect.  Therefore, her book does not utilize any of the phrases or jargon found within the field of criminology.  Nevertheless, she utilizes her background in architecture to provide an engaging discussion of crime, and her discussion essentially draws on the same ideas found within the field of environmental criminology.

If I were to situate Leo’s arguments specifically within the framework of routine activity theory, it would look like this: (1) the motivated offender is a rapist; (2) the suitable target is a female renter; and (3) the lack of capable guardianship includes all of the precautions that her landlord failed to take such as ensuring that a working lock is on the door to the building.

Essentially, Leo asks the reader to contemplate how living in an impoverished setting can contribute to the likelihood of victimization.  The ability to engage in target hardening assumes that one possesses control over his or her environment.  However, renters lack this control.

Following graduate school, Leo lived in Harlem, which was one of the only places in the New York City area that she could afford. Prior to moving in, she did not realize that her landlord was a known “slumlord” who did not take appropriate precautions on behalf of tenant safety.  After she moved in, she made multiple complaints about broken locks on the building.  One afternoon, Leo came home from the grocery store. She dropped her bags down, and when she then went to close the door of her apartment, a man was standing there with a gun.  He held her hostage in the apartment and raped her. Years later, he was arrested for another crime.  This was when the DNA found on the cigarette butt that he left in Leo’s apartment was finally tested, and he was identified as her rapist.  After Leo’s rape, but prior to the perpetrator’s subsequent arrest on other charges, the perpetrator also raped a woman while she was working as a maid in a hotel. He was a homeless young man who had actually been residing on the roof of Leo’s apartment building. In addition to the criminal proceedings against the rapist, Leo also ultimately Leo sued her landlord in civil court for his negligence in failing to provide a secure building. When discussing Article 16 which provides guidelines regarding civil liability, Leo says:

“The very existence of an article that legally regulates the relations and financial liabilities between the landlord or owner and a rapist gives a clue to how many rapes happen in apartments and inside buildings” (p. 119).

Leo’s discussion of crime from an environmental perspective also draws on the framework that criminologists refer to as strain theory.  In discussing risk factors associated with crime, she says that poverty needs to be examined.  We live in a society in which a person’s value is essentially based on his or her wealth.  This becomes dehumanizing for those who fail to achieve the American dream and may contribute to their decision to ultimately resort to crime. Although she describes criminality as “a default effect of capitalist exploitation and not simply the result of mental illness” (p. 91), her discussion (though engaging) is somewhat too cursory to be satisfying.  She also does not grapple with the limitations of attributing criminality to socioeconomic conditions.

Leo also argues that poverty is related to the likelihood of victimization.  For example, if wealth determines a person’s value in our society, then inflicting bodily harm on a poor person is easier because the poor are viewed as having less worth and value. She provides an illuminating discussion of crimes against the property of the rich versus crimes against the bodies of the poor.  She also emphasizes that poverty should be more important than race when discussing crime even though it is often overshadowed by discussions of race:

“The premise that a white woman is more likely to be raped in Harlem, a black neighborhood, is a stereotype.  But the premise that any woman is more likely to be raped in Harlem, a poor neighborhood, is based on facts.  I am white and I have been raped in Harlem, a black neighborhood, by a black man.  This is true and it happened, but it also hides part of the reality.  The complete story, the one capturing the full reality, is this: I was poor, which was why I moved to Harlem, a poor neighborhood; I am white; and I was raped in Harlem by a man, poor, homeless, and black” (p. 94).

Leo describes the humiliation associated with being a crime victim who also happens to be poor.  With regard to her civil suit against her landlord, she says:

“In legal terms, a person is what he or she has.  My income was low.  I had been a student for the previous three years, and I was only working part time.  A person is also where and how they live.  I lived in Harlem because I could afford it; rents were relatively cheap.  If I’d lived on the Upper East Side, in a building with a fancy doorman, the award would probably have been greater” (p. 120).

With regard to her criminal case, she mentions both the humiliation associated with being poor and the injustice of expecting victims to pay for rape kits (which collect evidence from the rape such as the rapist’s DNA).  She says:

“I had insurance, but was shocked that I had to pay for the evidence to be collected.  It was another form of humiliation.  I was angry about it.  I thought about all the people without insurance, and the shame of recognizing that having no insurance meant they would have to get charity to pay their bills.  I wondered if one day we would be billed for the cost of prosecuting and keeping an attacker in prison” (p. 103).

Overall, Leo provides a thought-provoking discussion of the environmental and socioeconomic factors associated with crime.  In particular, her analysis of public and private spaces provides important insights into how and why criminals brutalize female bodies.

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This entry was posted on January 23, 2012 by in book review and tagged , , , , .
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